Go Ask Alice (Russell)

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Alice Russell’s most recent album, To Dust, is a collection of soulful torch songs about unwavering tenacity in the midst of spurned love. Her live shows are raw and gritty affairs—her vocal acrobatics flying effortlessly across funky grooves and R&B beats. In anticipation of her concert at the Skirball on October 24, which celebrates indie label Tru Thoughts Recordings’ fifteenth anniversary, Russell shared some thoughts about her music career, her songwriting process, and some of her favorite Los Angeles haunts.

It’s been ten years since you released your debut album, Under the Munka Moon. How has a decade affected your music? 

Time has sprinted past. I have opened up over time. Over this decade I toured a lot, and that, bit by bit, forced me to really open up on stage and, in turn, in the studio. I have had the privilege to visit amazing places to perform and record, and these experiences can’t help but affect the music that I am now making. Continue reading

Echoing the Creole Past, Charting Zydeco’s Future

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One of the best parts of my job is that I have the privilege of working closely with the musicians we present. When preparing for our concerts, I like to listen to each band and familiarize myself with the history of the music they play as a way of getting to know them before I work with them in person. This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, I’m thrilled to meet with and see a performance by Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys, Louisiana’s Creole zydeco innovators. But before I get into Broussard’s indelible contributions to the Creole and zydeco traditions, let’s take a peek at the history of zydeco music and dance.

 A Very Brief History of Zydeco

Zydeco music has its roots in the Creole tradition of rural Louisiana. After World War II, Creole musicians began incorporating elements of blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll that they heard on the radio and jukeboxes into Creole party music, which is referred to by some as “la-la.” Since that time, zydeco has continuously evolved and incorporated influences from myriad musical genres. Yet it maintains its character through instrumentation centered on the accordion and rubboard, the latter of which drives zydeco’s strong syncopated rhythms.

Zydeco’s specific rhythm lends itself to a traditional type of dance, also called zydeco. Reader, now is the time to put on those cowboy boots! Done in either a “closed position” (meaning you and your partner stay connected) or “club style” (done with an “open style” variety of lead-and-follow improvised variations), the music is counted in eights:  slow/quick/quick, slow/quick/quick, with accompanying footwork: step pause/step/step. No matter which style of zydeco you prefer, it’s all about having a good time. And what better place to practice your newly honed zydeco skills than at this week’s concert? We’re even laying down a dance floor!

Check out this informative, easy-to-follow zydeco instructional video.

Jeffery Broussard, Innovator and Preserver of the Zydeco Tradition

Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys are one of very few bands who still play traditional Creole music and also seamlessly incorporate contemporary zydeco into their repertoire. Born into a zydeco legacy, Broussard is the youngest son (and one of ten other siblings… I can only imagine what the line for the bathroom was like in the Broussard household) of the renowned zydeco vocalist and accordionist Delton Broussard.  At the tender age of eight, Jeffery began playing drums in his father’s band, the Lawtell Playboys.

Continue reading

Yiddish Tango’s Close Embrace of History

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Yiddish Tango Club bandleader Gustavo Bulgach communes with his clarinet.

The Tango Club is dimly lit, nostalgic, romantic, surreal, magical, erotic, chaotic, unpredictable. A refuge for the soul, a place for the timeless, a melting pot of dreams and reality. . .

Thus begins the description of the Yiddish Tango Club on their Facebook page. Performing at Sunset Concerts this Thursday night, they are a band that seeks to ensnare listeners’ senses with a blend of Jewish soul music and the Argentinian tango of bandleader Gustavo Bulgach’s home country. From what I have listened to online in anticipation of their concert, I believe they will follow through on that promise. The Yiddish Tango Club is a beautiful musical ideal in an age of globalization—an international group of leading artists that is constantly in flux. Bulgach has performed all over the world with varying band members, essentially creating a new tango club at each performance. The approach is so ingrained in their performances that the group has included it in its mission, which promises that at “every show the audience and musicians will co-construct and manifest a unique Tango Club.” Continue reading

The Green Room, Merch Table, and More: Behind the Scenes at Sunset Concerts

It’s been a busy summer at the Skirball’s Sunset Concerts! As the Program department’s summer intern this year, it’s been a great experience to learn what it takes to put on one of these concerts each week. Now that I have four of them under my belt, I thought I’d share a little bit of what takes place in the hours before show time. Here’s a glimpse at what took place on August 7 as we prepared to present The Haden Triplets.

1:25 p.m.: I arrive at the Skirball later on concert days since we will be working late into the night. It is a sunny day with a light breeze and I chat with security staff about the perfect weather for tonight. We might even need to put sweaters on later!

1:30 p.m.: I have eight e-mails and a voicemail waiting for me. All except one are regarding last-minute updates to press parking or artist accommodations. I make all the necessary changes to our databases.

Additional-Sunset-Concert-Photos-003 Continue reading

Flaco Jiménez’s Modern Conjunto Is Right on the Button

Flaco Jiménez and Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs play the Sunset Concerts stage this Thursday evening, August 14, at 8:00 p.m. KPFK DJ Betto Arcos spins starting at 7:00 p.m.

Mexican conjunto music is that rare hybrid that perfectly embodies the spirit of the Skirball’s Sunset Concerts—enduring musical traditions and cross-cultural exchange, with one foot in the past but an eye fixed toward the future. For legendary accordionist Flaco Jiménez and bajo sexto player Max Bacawho take the Sunset Concerts stage together this Thursday night—that music is in their blood.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Jiménez hails from a long line of conjunto musicians. His grandfather, Patricio Jiménez, played in dance halls with German and Polish immigrants who brought the polka and the button accordion to South Texas, and his father, Santiago Jiménez Sr., was instrumental in popularizing conjunto in the 1930s. While Flaco followed in his family’s footsteps, he also helped make conjunto relevant to new audiences in his own way—in addition to playing standards, he also played accordion with contemporary musicians like The Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, and Bob Dylan.

Flaco Jiménez performing a rendition of “La Bamba” with Ry Cooder

Max Baca was only seven years old when he met Flaco Jiménez, but by then he had already taken up the accordion and was performing with his own father, who was also an accordionist. It was Jiménez who inspired Baca to switch instruments and become the renowned bajo sexto player that he is today. Continue reading

A Musical Family Tree: The Haden Triplets Branch Out

The Haden Triplets will take the Sunset Concerts stage this Thursday night, August 7, at 8:00 p.m. Come early and hear DJ Robert Mora do a set starting at 7:00 p.m.. Photo by Jo McCaughey.

I was really excited when I first heard that The Haden Triplets were going to perform at this year’s Sunset Concerts. These three talented women—Tanya Haden, Rachel Haden, and Petra Haden—have a tremendous artistic range and have done so many unique, eclectic, high-quality projects, on their own and collectively. From collaborations with Beck, Weezer, the Silversun Pickups, and Bette Midler, to touring with Todd Rundgren, to creating an a capella version of The Who’s classic album The Who Sells Out, to their latest project performing their own gorgeous interpretations of classic American country and folk songs—there is nothing these sisters can’t do!

Check out the Haden Triplets performing a recent NPR Tiny Desk concert. Careful! You may end up playing this on repeat, as I have been doing.

I particularly appreciate that they choose to make music as a family and that they are carrying on their family’s rich tradition of music. The Haden Triplets, along with their brother, Josh, of the band Spain, are following in the footsteps of their father, the late legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, as well as those of their grandparents who performed as The Haden Family when Charlie was a child. Together they are not only preserving an important musical history but also making this music accessible to a new generation. Continue reading

Por Fin Viene: Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas in L.A.

I visited Cuba in December 2011 to attend a major international jazz festival. It was a great chance to view the Havana beaches and cityscape, including the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (pictured above right). Photos by Jordan Peimer.

When I think of Cuban music, I think of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Its grand ballroom has hosted all the greats—from Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas, founded by renowned bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez (1911–1970), to, more recently, members of the Buena Vista Social Club. In the 1940s and 1950s, the hotel was the center of Havana’s rhythmic culture, a place of glamour where residents and vacationers alike could rub elbows with celebrities, gangsters, and politicians and dance the son. [Incidentally, a large influx of American Jews traveled to Cuba specifically to explore the Latin sounds that had provided the soundtrack to the Borscht Belt’s nightly dance parties. There, in the Catskill Mountains, Latin music had been entertaining Jewish audiences for decades.]

You’ll definitely get on your feet and dance when you hear Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas this week at Sunset Concerts. Here’s a clip of the band performing at Lincoln Center in New York this year.

This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas perform in the ensemble’s Los Angeles debut, bringing more than seven decades of history as icons of Cuban son. In recognition of how much Angelenos love Latin dancing, the Skirball will be removing many rows of seats and installing a dance floor for the show. We invite you to bring your dancing shoes and dance the night away—just like you would have in 1940s Cuba at the Hotel Nacional! Continue reading

House Party with Noura

Noura and me at the party in Timbuktu.

Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritanian music royalty. Her father was the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania. Her stepmother is Dimi Mint Abba, one of the few Mauritanian singers to achieve a degree of fame outside her home country. And Noura herself is a master of the ardine, a harp-like instrument containing about fifteen strings and built from a calabash base and two cylindrical wooden rods. But these impressive facts do nothing to prepare you for Noura’s voice—an instrument of such power, control, and resonance that it seems to fundamentally rearrange the DNA of the listener. Like Umm Kulthum (Egypt), Sussan Deyhim (Iran), and Fairuz (Lebanon) before her, Noura takes the root sounds of her homeland and transforms them into something new and ecstatic.

Umm Kulthum performing “Baeed Anak” in Paris, November 1967.

I first met Noura in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2012. Like me (and thousands of others), she had come to Timbuktu for the twelfth edition of Mali’s famed Festival au Désert. Unfortunately, geopolitical events had recently forced the festival’s organizers to abandon their longstanding location in the rural commune of Essakane. As a result, the festival instead took place within walking distance of Timbuktu’s city limits. One evening, as the festival was winding down, I received word of a house concert being held by my hosts in Timbuktu in their private compound just across from my quarters. Noura was scheduled to perform with her band at the festival the following day, but that evening we were treated to an intimate command performance that ran late into the night. Continue reading

Your Recipe for a Romantic Vegan Date at the Skirball

Check out my recipe (linked in the article below) for a fresh vegan summer salad, a satisfying accompaniment to Sunset Concerts at the Skirball.

Check out my recipe (linked in the article below) for a fresh vegan summer salad,
a satisfying accompaniment to Sunset Concerts at the Skirball.

It’s summer, and that means concert season has begun! Now that it’s officially July, you can start counting down the days to this summer’s Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. It all starts on July 24 with a performance by Noura Mint Seymali and continues every Thursday night through August 28.

Sunset Concerts are fun, festive events to share with friends and family. Each concert offers you a night filled with music and dancing, and the concerts are all FREE! Every concert showcases a different style of music, so make sure to check out the Skirball website for a complete line-up. The concerts begin at 8:00 p.m., but try to arrive early because the seating is first-come, first-served!

In my opinion, Sunset Concerts are especially perfect for a romantic date night. If you are looking to impress that special someone, I’ve outlined the recipe for a romantic summertime evening below:

  • I would suggest planning ahead and packing a picnic. Who doesn’t love to be courted with a home-cooked meal? If your date has any special dietary needs, check out my recipe for a vegan Greek salad. As with any great recipe, there’s room for modifications; for instance, you can add feta cheese if you prefer to make a nonvegan version. Along with the salad, pack a baguette or crackers, your favorite hummus, and grapes or strawberries to nibble on. (If packing a picnic isn’t your style, you can purchase a complete meal on site at Zeidler’s expanded grab-and-go cart, featuring gourmet sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, and assorted other goodies.) Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Jul/Aug 2014

Dendé And Band on stage for Sunset Concerts at the Skirball 2013.

Dendé And Band on stage for Sunset Concerts at the Skirball 2013.

Music moves us like few other forms of human expression. It speaks a universal language. Gladness, sorrow, yearning, hope, love—each of us feels these emotions as unique, yet music has a way of connecting them, and us, in all our shared humanity.

Music, like every language, is more than sound. It comes from somewhere—not only from a voice or an instrument, but from a composer, a performer, and a context. The Skirball Cultural Center is all about context—the communities we inhabit, the cultures we celebrate, the memories we cherish. When concerts are performed at the Skirball, they are appreciated not only as music but as vessels of community, culture, and memory. They enrich our knowledge of the world and of each other, even as they unite our hearts in song and dance.

This summer, Continue reading